Just Give Hing a Chance

What is the most offensive smell in the world?

I am sure there are some truly nasty smelling things out there, but there is one thing in particular that I find utterly utterly offensive and yet I have to come into contact with it every time I go to the Indian grocery store… I even have this in my very own home.

Hmm… what could it be? Any guesses?

If you read the title, then I’m sure you know… It’s the dreaded hing!

Why does she look so happy? I don't understand! The smell, the smell!

I don't understand, why does she look so happy? Ohhh the pungent smell!

If I go to an Indian grocery store for the first time I can tell where they keep the hing based solely on a whiff at the head of the grocery aisle since the smell is so distinctive and strong. I really can’t describe it, but just writing about hing makes my nose itch; other names it is known by are “devil’s dung” and “stinking gum” so that should give you some sort of mental picture.

Well… perhaps not, since it doesn’t actually smell anything like dung… I guess it has more of a strong spicy medicinal smell… one of those smells that could clear your nostrils (and lungs, heck… perhaps it will even clean your toenails!)  if you breathe it in deeply enough—which  might just be true (the nostril and lungs part) since Wikipedia lists one of its traditional medicinal uses as helpful in alleviating asthma and bronchitis: “A folk tradition remedy for children’s colds: [mix it] into a pungent-smelling paste and [hang it] in a bag around the afflicted child’s neck.”

Blagh! Poor kid!

Upon a closer reading, I really think Wikipedia says it best… hing “has a pungent, unpleasant smell when raw… Its odor, when uncooked, is so strong that it must be stored in airtight containers; otherwise the aroma will contaminate other spices stored nearby.”

The little white plastic bottle... people actually *buy* this stuff in "10 packs"?

The little white plastic bottle... you can actually buy a "10 pack" on Amazon.com for $30. How random is that?

The first time I came into contact with this product was when P and I were living in Central New York while he was completing his masters. For the first time there was an Indian grocery store in the same city as us, and occasionally we would drive to the other end of town and pick some stuff up. One day P found some hing in its little sealed off bottle and said, “this stuff is great!”

I picked it up and right away I could smell it… permeating through the white plastic container. What the hell was this stuff? P happily threw it into our shopping basket, and much to my dismay, we actually brought it home.

At first I kept it in the cupboard above the stove with our canned goods, but every time I came into the kitchen I could smell it… through the plastic container, through the wooden cupboard door, permeating the very smell of the kitchen itself. I put it in a plastic tupperware container, but I could still smell it. Then I put the tupperware container in a ziplock bag, and I swear I could still smell it. It took me weeks to get used to the smell enough not to notice it every time I entered the kitchen. What on earth would we ever use this repulsive smelling herb for? I certainly wasn’t going to ingest it.

Then one night I was having a really bad attack of some gastrointestinal issues. The pain was so intense I had trouble sleeping, trouble moving, trouble breathing. I just wanted to prick my stomach with a pin to remove the pressure it hurt so much. “I think I know exactly what will help you,” P declared, and ran off to the kitchen. He brought back the dreaded hing!

Such a beautiful plant, such a stinky smell...

Such a beautiful plant, such a stinky smell...

“No way am I eating that!” I said, “I already feel horrible, I will not make it worse!” but he insisted… his mother used to say it relieved gas and bad stomachaches. So he mixed some of it up in a glass of water and forced me to drink it. Ewww… I insisted that nothing changed, but with a lack of other options I laid down, and eventually felt comfortable enough to go to sleep. In the morning I felt a lot better. Could it be that this nasty herb actually helped me?

According to the Wikipedia entry on hing it actually has quite a few reputed medicinal qualities, including possible side effects that protect against H1N1, and it was even used to fight against the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Who would have guessed?

Recently I was reading through my handy dandy Nepali cookbook and noticed that several recipes were calling for a bit of “asafoetida.” I didn’t realize that asafoetida was hing until I was looking up some info on hing for a potential blog posting. So that means, some of my favorite Nepali dishes use (in some recipes) the dreaded hing, I never knew! When cooked it is suppose to have the “taste and aroma reminiscent of sautéed onion and garlic.” I even found an interesting National Geographic blog posting about Jain cooking using hing in place of onions to bring an onion flavor to their dishes without using the religiously off-limits vegetable. Well… I like cooked onion and garlic…

… so maybe I need to give hing a chance…

… but I can’t promise that I won’t hold my breath!

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14 responses to “Just Give Hing a Chance

  1. I do use hing in certain recipes and I don’t mind the smell at all, even though its English name is related to the word fetid!!! In foods you just have to use it with a very very light hand and make sure it fries in the oil well before you add the wet ingredients. It reduces “wai” or air (okay let’s just say it—flatulence factor!!!!) in lentils and baras made of lentils.

    Very informative post. Now I will have to try hing in water rather than Alka Seltzer :-)

  2. wow it’s interesting reading your blog, my bf is also from nepal. his bday is coming up and i wanted to tell him a couple of romantic phrases in nepalese, could you possibly ask P for one or two simple ones, with the english translation so i know what it means! thanks!! :)

    • Hi Red26… I haven’t forgotten you…
      What would you like to say? I guess the easiest is “I love you” which in Nepali is “Ma timilai maya garchu”
      Happy Birthday is “subha janma-din”

  3. sounds like it might be an ayurvedic herb remedy? they are usually nasty smelling, tasting, and feeling…but then somehow make you feel better. Could it be Ayurvedic? I have been relying on other ayurvedic remedies to attempt to keep myself swine-flu free this season, especially the neti pot (with warm water, Nasya oil and sea salt in it)….the neti is the most awesome thing I’ve ever used to fight cold type problems. i love nasal cleansing! P.S. Is Hing as bad tasting as Tibetan herbal pills blessed by His Holiness??

    • Eliza: I forgot what those Tibetan herbal pills blessed by the Dalai Lama tasted like… but I do remember the face you made when you ate it and the description you gave it ;)

      According to Wikipedia… “In Ayurveda, asafoetida is considered to be one of the best spices for balancing the vata dosha.”

  4. I’ve looked for this at the Indian grocery because I’d seen it in quite a few Nepali recipies…I didn’t bring it home because the smell almost knocked me over!! I’m still not sure if the benefits outweigh the stinkiness factor…I might just stick with onions, garlic & Alka Seltzer!

    • I actually got a Google chat message the other day from a friend who said:

      “are you kidding me? HING is the MOST OFFENSIVE smell? that is UTTERLY RIDICULOUS…oh man… [sarcasm] you just lost all your chances of being a part of Nepali Culture… hing is AWESOME, but like most things, its acquired… i don’t think we are going to come to any agreeable place on this one, so lets just agree to disagree. I still love you, but I also love HING.”

      Meanwhile I noticed that LuckyFatima also noted that she doesn’t mind the smell. I’m sure there is a certain level of “acquired-ness” involved in desensitizing yourself to the strength of the smell. Or maybe its like the cilantro thing… people tend to love it or hate it. I don’t know.

      Full disclosure though, I have started to realize that the smell of hing doesn’t effect me as strongly as it used to, however when confronted with a shelf full of those little white bottles at the grocery store, I think it could knock me over as well!

  5. Reminds me of my encounters with Hajmola – a “candy”/children’s digestive. God awful stuff, but Aditya loves it.

  6. Thanks for this post! We bought some of this last year for a recipe I wanted to try and for a long time I couldn’t figure out why my house smelled so different afterward. Have you ever used kewra essence for anything? This also has a very “interesting” smell.

  7. I was telling a co-worker, whose family is from the Appalacian mountains in eastern Kentucky, about hing. She told me that the old-timers from the mountains used to wear an “asafoetiditity bag” around their neck to ward off disease…thus your Wikipedia reference to the cold remedy. I personally think it just made the wearer smell so foul, no one would come near them to spread germs!

    • I had never heard of hing or asafoetida until I met P. I was surprised to see in the Wikipedia entry that it was “familiar in the early Mediterranean” and was carried by Alexander the Great into Europe (although it did “fall out of fashion” in the Middle Ages.) I never would have imagined people in Appalachia growing or using it either. It’s kind of interesting…

      But I seriously could not imagine wearing some of it in a bag around my neck. I suppose after awhile one could get used to the smell… but those first few days, no one would want to be my friend!

  8. I found this post because I started taking an ayurvedic herbal blend that had a very distinct smell and makes each exhalation (I’ll just be honest here) torturous. I researched each herb in the blend and found out that hing is the same as asafoetida. Funny thing, I cook with asafoetida, but maybe frying it first helps. My practitioner suggested that I use it to help with my detox, breathing problems, and to balance my Vata dosha, but it’s getting to the point where everything I eat tastes like the herb and I almost want to stop taking it (even though I only need to take it for 5 more days).

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